Alton Brown’s knife demo

Favorite chef?  Check.  Free cooking lesson?  Check.  Free food?  Check.

There wasn’t a reason NOT to go to Sur La Table last Wednesday to watch Alton Brown do a knife demo.  If you haven’t already guessed from the name of my blog, his show, Good Eats, is probably my greatest culinary influence.  He taught me about the whys of cooking so I can troubleshoot my recipes.  Like Alton, I’d rather enjoy simple, well-prepared food than a dish with so much going on that you can only name it by its ingredients, like Meyer lemon pepper sable with blueberry gelee.  Dang, sometimes I just want a cookie.

Like any free event, the demo was actually a giant promotion, specifically for Sur La Table, Alton Brown, Shun knives and American Express.  I took the commercial aspect with a grain of salt but walked away with a free lesson on knife skills.  Some highlights:

  • The design of the food will tell you how to cut it most efficiently.  For example, the standard way to dice an onion is the crosshatch method: score the onion horizontally and vertically before cubing it.  But if you’ve ever watched Shrek, you know that onions have layers, which can work to your advantage.  An easier way is to make several radial cuts (start at the edge and slant down into the center) in each onion half.  Then you can slice down to cube it.  You’ve just saved yourself one step.
  • Take the path of least resistance.  For example, it’s easier to julienne a bell pepper with the skin side up.  That way, the edges won’t curl up on you.  But if you have a dull knife that can’t pierce through the skin, you’re better off cutting it with the skin side down.
  • Use the cutting board as friction to cut through sticky foods.  For example, if you want to slice a peeled avocado half, don’t just cut straight down into the board.  Otherwise, you’ll continuously have to stop to remove each piece from your knife.  Instead, cut each strip at an angle and slide the avocado half across the board.  Sushi chefs use the same method to cut fish.
  • Minimize the possibility of accidents as much as possible.  Curl in the fingers on your non-knife hand, like a claw.  The knife should ride up against your knuckles so you always know where the blade is, even when you aren’t looking.
  • When chopping, your knife hand should stay in one area, while the other hand feeds the food into the blade, kind of like a log cutter.
  • To test if your cutting board is big enough for the knife, lay the knife diagonally across it.  The board should have about two inches clearance on both sides.
  • To cut uniform pieces, the object isn’t speed but rhythm.  That being said, it’s easier to cut on a wooden board.  Knives stick on plastic boards.

For more of Alton’s knife tips, check out the transcripts to his shows, Seeing Red (scroll down to scene three and four) and Soup’s On (scroll to scene five with the picture of little Elton and the cutting board).

Here’s Alton in action:

Alton yelling “Demo!” as he bisected a honeydew with one swoop of a knife.

Yes, that melon was cut in half with the effortless drop of a knife.

Who’s that handsome fellow?

Alton answered several questions as he went along. Most of the time, he wasn’t stumbled.

The “Alton’s Angle” line featured his picture on the blade, something only his mother would appreciate. (His words, not mine.)

There is a point to the cupcake dance…Note the humble muffin on the left and the frosted cake on the right.

Alton compared German blades (Wusthof-Trident, J.A. Henckels) to the interior of a spice muffin: delicious but rustic-shaped air pockets. Knives were modeled after swords, and in Germany swords were used for brute force.

In Japan however, swords were used for precision. Blades on Japanese knives were more delicate, kind of like the uniform air pockets in a poundcake-style cupcake.

He noted that knives are all about personal preference (do you prefer muffins or pound cakes?), but of course the Japanese knife sounded more desirable.

Alton demonstrated the correct way to grip a knife.

“You know why cooks in restaurants clank their knives on the honing steel?” Alton asked. “Because there’s a window!”

Honing re-aligns a sharp edge that got curved, while sharpening corrects a flattened edge. To hone, delicately slide the knife against a steel at a 22 degree angle. With practice, you can tell if you’re at the correct angle just by hearing the sound of the blade against the steel.

Alton demonstrating how to skin a mango with a Santoku knife. Santokus are good for beginners.

Check out Sur La Table in Soho for more free events, including a Mario Batali book signing/cooking demo on 10/26 and prepared foods from Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Laurent Tourondel, Todd English and Cedric Tovar on 11/16.  Upscale kitchen stores like Sur La Table, Williams-Sonoma and Crate & Barrel are all about the eye candy,  but use them to your advantage!

For actual purchases, I recommend the restaurant supply stores along Bowery St.  (If your job is to do bulk cooking, there’s no way you’d pay $10 for one cake pan.)  Chef Restaurant Supply has professional baking sheets for $5, less than what you’d pay in the supermarket for smaller, flimsy sheets.  And you wonder why your cookies burn on the bottom: generic cookie sheets attract heat because they’re thin and have a dark non-stick coating.  But that’s another post, or not.

Sur La Table
75 Spring Street
New York, NY 10012
Phone: (212) 966-3375
Hours: Mon-Sat 9:30am-8pm, Sun 10am-6pm

Chef Restaurant Supply
294 Bowery (near Houston)
New York, NY 10012
Phone: (212) 254-6644

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  1. jeff mccord said,

    Alton Brown has been a great inspiration to me also i use alot of his methods in my cooking im working on my way now to become a chef but im having fun just getting there. I was just wondering if there were any dates i can see him comming up thats not in new york im from Atlanta, GA but now i live in Kingsport,TN
    thank you for your time

    January 30, 2007 at 9:52 am

  2. Heather Faust said,

    I think AB has left an impression on all of the culinary world. Not only are his styles of prep for food simple but their not intricate or showy. I guess what I want to say is that AB has left a mark on the whole apperance of food period. also he is extremely funny and good eats is informative and eyecatching all in one. I’d love to meet him and see what his general outlook is on everything.
    and this is all from a little town of new ringgold in pennsylvania!
    ps he’s also a little cute too!

    April 15, 2007 at 10:38 pm